I am thrilled to share this excellent article from the Guardian on Els, the 8-year-old who challenged Scholastic’s perpetuation of gender stereotypes through a petition that called on the publisher to stop marketing its books as “for boys” or “for girls.”
Articles like this one give us hope for the future–Els’ thoughtfulness, her critical analysis of the situation, and her strength in standing up and protesting the unfair way these books were being presented, are qualities much to be admired in someone of any age, but especially in someone so young, and the thought of the world in the hands of people like Els is inspiring. However, as many parents, siblings, and caretakers reading this will be aware, these qualities are not as rare in children as one might think: rather, they are strengths that are all-too-often missed by adults, as we overlook, ignore, or significantly diminish the skills and ideas of the under-12s (and older too, for that matter–but that’s a different story). Thus, stories like this one are exceptional not only because Els spoke up, but because someone actually listened.
Els’ protest also brings to mind, for me at least, another issue at work within the world of publishing and marketing. For the past few years, the children’s literary market has been dominated by young adult titles: from Twilight, to The Hunger Games and Divergent, not to mention John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the books that have received the biggest share of cultural attention, headlines, movie rights and bestseller spots have been those geared to 13+, and frequently read by those 30+ as well; unfortunately, a side-effect of this massive surge in popularity for YA lit has been a serious diminishing of attention, opportunity, and respect for books geared towards younger readers.
Having said that, in recent months we’ve started to see a shift in the tone of new releases: the steady stream of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic dystopian novels has diminished, and while there are more books about teens with terminal illnesses than there used to be, that really hasn’t stepped up as a dominant genre. Rather, we’re starting to see a return to what might be considered “old-fashioned” children’s literature: novels where the characters are between 9-13 years old, act largely independently of adults, must take on a great deal of responsibility, and are caught up in mysteries, peril, and fantastic adventures of assorted kinds. Parents are kidnapped, stolen paintings uncovered, mystical creatures with amazing powers encountered: the plots and premises are varied, and the depth and sophistication of characterisation and emotion (in the good ones, at least), absolutely rivals, if not to say surpasses, those of books written for more “mature” audiences. Much like their older counterparts, the protagonists of children’s literature frequently find themselves in fraught situations where the world hangs in the balance, but–and here’s a key distinction–in these novels the world is worth saving. These stories are not naive in tone, nor is there an abundance of Pollyanna-esque levels of overwhelming positivity. Tragedies happen and sorrow touches characters in ways both great and small. But there is a quality of optimism in these novels which has been largely absent from teen lit of recent years, and from adult literature for far longer, and it is this optimism that I believe that is so important in the raising of children and young adults of the current generation.
I believe that most children are, by nature, optimists–that they have the courage of their convictions, whatever they may be, and that they are willing to fight for what they believe in (and also, as every exhausted parent knows, to fight very hard for what they want); Els, with her determination and willingness to challenge herself and others, is a perfect example of this kind of steely optimism, which children’s literature, done well, encourages and strengthens. Children are, I think often more than adults, sure that they are able to make a serious difference in the world; going by the evidence, I’m inclined to think they’re right.